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Finding Solutions to India's Waste Problem

Rishi Aggarwal says reduce, reuse and recycle are three simple ways to deal with the issue of waste.

IVLP participant Rishi Aggarwal is an environmental activist and research fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in Mumbai. Founder of the Mumbai Environmental Social Network, Aggarwal has worked on environmental and urban issues for over 15 years.

Excerpts from an interview.

What inspired you to work in the field of waste management?

My upbringing was important in shaping the way I think. I grew up in the then-pristine hill station of Mussoorie. My mother’s maternal grandmother didn’t believe in wasting anything. Even the dust swept up from the floor would be put into the flowerbeds in the garden. When I was about 13, we shifted to Mumbai. The filth and waste in Mumbai were a complete contrast to Mussoorie. Also, much of the conversation around that time centered not just on solid waste management but also on how we could reduce air pollution and the pollution of our rivers. This strengthened my resolve to work in the area of waste management.


How does the concept of resource management apply to waste management?

What is waste from one process can become a resource in another. For example, food waste can be composted or converted into biogas, thus becoming a resource for heating or meeting soil nutrient needs. Therefore, the credo in the field is that it’s more about resource management rather than waste management. And that’s where we are failing.


What are some of the main challenges in smart waste management?

I have worked in this area for almost 15 years. While our large population is often cited as a problem, I don’t believe that population alone is a problem.

Reduce, reuse and recycle are three simple ways to deal with the issue of waste. At present, about 6,500 tons of garbage and nearly 2,500 tons of construction and demolition waste are generated daily in Mumbai. Waste management isn’t about picking and putting the waste elsewhere. All the dumping grounds stand on municipal land. Contracts have been given out for doing “scientific closure of dumps” and to process the incoming waste in a scientific manner. A per ton processing fee is decided upon. But what we see in some cases is that while the fee is given out by the municipal corporation, no processing happens. In others, questionable technologies are used.

There is a clear distinction between solid waste, which comprises things like plastic packets, papers and other items that cannot be consumed and liquid waste like fat and oil. All governments should work to educate citizens about how such wastes should be treated.

Common people must become more aware of how their municipal corporations function and be involved. Municipal corporations should use public money better to manage garbage by supporting the fundamental principles of waste management and encouraging solutions based around them. For example, promote the use of cloth bags when you go to the market and recycling of wet waste for composting. While the solutions might not be easy, they are doable.


How important is creating awareness among people about waste management?

Expensive technology can provide solutions, but I believe even a simple solution, like having two bins to segregate waste, will go a long way in ensuring that garbage is disposed properly. I know of buildings in Parel, Mumbai, where people send no waste out at all. They segregate and compost. They have succeeded on their own, and they succeeded because they had the will to take action.


Please share your experiences of your visit to the United States in 2007 as part of the U.S. State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP).

My experiences as an IVLP Fellow were wonderful. We traveled to Washington, D.C., San Diego, Reno, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh. I enjoyed visiting an air pollution management center in Pittsburgh, where we saw how polluted the city was during the mining era and how it was later cleaned up.


Paromita Pain is a journalist based in Austin, Texas.